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  • Low Self-Control, Peer Rejection, Reactive Criminal Thinking, and Delinquent Peer Associations: Connecting the Pieces of the Crime Puzzle

    Glenn D. Walters1

    Received: 22 October 2015 /Revised: 25 February 2016 /Accepted: 2 March 2016 / Published online: 12 March 2016 # Springer International Publishing AG 2016

    Abstract Purpose The present series of studies were designed to test the control model of criminal lifestyle development which integrates aspects of low self-control, general strain, differential association, and criminal thinking. Methods Participants for the first study were 411 boys from the Cambridge Study of Delinquency Development, and participants for the second study were 3817 children from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth-Child (NLSY-C) sample. Results In the first study (Cambridge), peer-rated popularity (peer rejection) and teacher-rated low self-control were cross-lagged, with results showing that while low self-control predicted peer rejection, peer rejection did not predict low self-control. In the second study (NLSY-C), findings revealed that (1) peer rejection predicted deviant peer associations but not vice versa, (2) delinquency and reactive criminal thinking mediated the peer rejection–peer delinquency relationship, and (3) negative affect (depression, anxiety, loneliness) alone did not mediate the peer rejection–peer delin- quency relationship nor did it alter the indirect effects of delinquency and reactive criminal thinking on this relationship. Conclusions The results of these two studies suggest that theoretical integration is possible and that reactive criminal thinking plays an important role in mediating relationships involving such traditional criminological variables as low self-control, strain created by peer rejection, and peer delinquency.

    Keywords Low self-control . Peer rejection . Peer delinquency . Reactive criminal thinking

    J Dev Life Course Criminology (2016) 2:209–231 DOI 10.1007/s40865-016-0028-3

    * Glenn D. Walters walters@kutztown.edu

    1 Department of Criminal Justice, Kutztown University, Kutztown, PA 19530-0730, USA


  • Introduction

    The state of theory in criminology and criminal justice has frequently been described as fragmented and disjointed [1]. A principal reason for this is the relatively large number of single-variable theories used to explain crime [2]. Some of these theories—differ- ential association [3] and the general theory of crime [4], in particular—have made significant and lasting contributions to criminological scholarship and practice. Still, no single construct, regardless of how powerful or important, can fully account for a behavior as complex as crime. Several scholars have called for theoretical unification in criminology and criminal justice [5, 6]. These calls have gone largely unheeded, not because researchers do not see the need for integration but because of problems associated with the unification process itself [7]. Like the pieces of a puzzle, these single-variable theories require integration to realize their full potential. This means finding a way to integrate the different theories, identifying a unifying set of principles or conceptual mechanisms, and then testing these principles or mechanisms. Liska et al. [8] describe three types of integration: side-by-side (horizontal), end-to-end (sequen- tial), and up-and-down (deductive). The current paper utilizes the end-to-end or sequential approach to integration whereby causal conditions are ordered along a continuum of proximal and distal relationships. Whether some of these putative causes are properly ordered is the research question that guided the two studies presented in this paper.

    Walters [9] offers an overarching theory of criminal behavior in which statistical procedures (mediation and moderation, primarily) are used to integrate concepts from different criminological theories. This theory is comprised of two developmental models: a moral or proactive model and a control or reactive model. According to Walters [9], the moral model captures the planned, calculated, and instrumental aspects of crime and the control model represents the impulsive, irresponsible, and emotional aspects. Although these two models have overlapping features, they can and have been studied separately. Figure 1 lays out the principal constructs and pathways found in the control model of criminal lifestyle development. The biological (disinhibited or diffi- cult temperament: [10, 11]) and environmental (weak parental monitoring and poor parental socialization: [12]) antecedents of the control model, despite their absence from Fig. 1, are of cardinal significance in the development of low self-control [4], the core concept in the control model. Low self-control gives rise to delinquency through a process of weak behavioral restraint [13, 14], and weak behavioral restraint can lead to weak cognitive restraint or what is known in lifestyle theory as reactive (impulsive,

    Strain (Peer











    Delinquency Delinquency









    Fig. 1 Control model of criminal lifestyle development

    210 G. D. Walters

  • emotional) criminal thinking. Delinquency gives rise to a number of constructs central to the control model of lifestyle development, to include reactive criminal thinking, strain, and delinquent peer associations (peer selection effect). Each of these variables was selected for inclusion in the control model because of their relationship to delinquency and each other. Overlap with the moral model is indicated by the presence of proactive criminal thinking in the latter stages of the model, stemming, in this case, from exposure to delinquent peers (peer influence effect).

    Prior research is the foundation upon which the control model of criminal lifestyle development is based. A number of studies have investigated specific pathways in the control model, and several have tested a major model assumption, namely, that low self-control and reactive criminal thinking are not one in the same. Low self-control, as conceptualized by Gottfredson and Hirschi [4], is behavioral in nature and comparable to behavioral impulsivity [15]. Reactive criminal thinking, as conceptualized by Walters [9], is cognitive in nature and comparable to criminal attitudes and beliefs [16]. Ericson and Carriere [2] insinuate that one reason for the surfeit of single-variable theories in criminology is a tendency on the part of some theorists to be overly broad in their theorizing, resulting in what might be called compound constructs containing several related constructs. There is also a tendency on the part of traditional crimino- logical theory to ignore or at least downplay developmental and situational influences on behavior, a trend that has only recently been reversed with the introduction of developmental and life-course theories of crime [17]. One could argue that Gottfredson and Hirschi’s [4] conceptualization of low self-control is one example of overly broad theorizing that ignores developmental and situational (with the exception of opportu- nity) factors. The control model of criminal lifestyle development seeks to reverse this tendency by restricting its definition of self-control and its associated situational and developmental influences to behavioral patterns (i.e., behavioral impulsivity), while conceptualizing the cognitive aspects as an entirely new construct (i.e., reactive crim- inal thinking).

    Lifestyle theory holds that low self-control precedes reactive criminal thinking, and research denotes that while low self-control predicts reactive criminal thinking, reactive criminal thinking does not predict low self-control [10]. Walters [10] also discovered that reactive criminal thinking mediated the relationship between low self-control and delinquency, but low self-control did not mediate the relationship between reactive criminal thinking and delinquency. These results suggest that low self-control is the original problem, with roots in behavioral disinhibition, and that reactive criminal thinking arises from low self-control and delinquency (see also, [18]) and then serves as a mediator of relationships between initial low self-control or behavioral impulsivity and subsequent delinquency and crime. Cognitive variables like reactive criminal thinking often makes excellent mediators of behavior and social conditions [19]. Furthermore, research indicates that reactive criminal thinking is capable of mediating both the peer selection effect (participant delinquency leading to delinquent peers: [20]) and crime continuity (past delinquency leading to future delinquency: [21]). The presence of a reciprocal relationship between delinquency and reactive criminal think- ing has received empirical support [21] and is consistent with Thornberry’s [6] reci- procity model of delinquency.

    The conceptual health and relevance of the control model depend on further theoretical integration and the inclusion of additional evidence-based criminological

    Peer Rejection and Peer Associations 211

  • constructs. One popular and well-validated criminological theory that may fit nicely into the framework of the control model of criminal lifestyle development is general strain theory. According to the author of general strain theory [22], certain losses, deprivations, and frustrations create strain which, in turn, lea